A program developed at the Nicholas School is helping hundreds of Durham-area environmental professionals and educators learn how to recognize and overcome biases that can undermine their organizations’ missions and undercut efforts to achieve diversity and equity in their ranks.

Launched in 2017, the Diversity and Equity in Environmental Programs (DEEP) Collaborative brings members of the environmental community together “to share insights and have the tough conversations that can lead to meaningful change, which is something we all aspire to,” said program organizer Nicolette Cagle.

“While environmental professional and STEM educators are often committed to expanding opportunities for all people and ending environmental injustice, commitment alone is sometimes not enough,” she said. “Most of us also need training to identify and eradicate deeply ingrained biases or behaviors that reinforce the legacy of environmental racism. Unfortunately, many environmental and educational organizations simply don’t have the capacity to provide it.”

And that’s where DEEP comes in.

This spring, it partnered with the Durham Environmental Coalition to present a free series of four “Racial Equity and Environment” workshops for more than 200 employees and volunteers from over 35 local environmental, educational and JEDI-focused organizations, including several government agencies. (JEDI stands for Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion.)

“One of the first barriers we worked to overcome is language, because even though we may all agree on a common goal, we don’t always use a common set of words and terms to talk about race and racialized oppression, so we can end up crossing wires or deciding not to talk at all,” Cagle said. “Our first workshop introduced concepts and terms we can use to talk about these issues and open the lines of communication.”

Defining terms like diversity and familiarizing participants with concepts like institutional betrayal – how institutions that are supposed to work for everyone end up favoring certain subgroups – helps put people on the same page. It also broadens their understanding of environmental racism’s far-reaching impacts, from unconscious biases that influence hiring decisions to racialized oppression that restricts services to communities of color or places hazardous waste sites near them.

As the workshops progressed, participants delved more deeply into those impacts, drawing on case studies from the Durham community.

“We examined how race and environmental justice shaped the building of Highway 147, including which neighborhoods were most affected and how those decisions were made,” Cagle said. “We also looked at how redlining has influenced municipal tree planting – aka, tree racism – in Durham, which is an issue that flew under the radar for years.”

In each workshop, participants divided into smaller groups to discuss the issues and propose solutions-based approaches to address them. Collaborative homework assignments encouraged participants to keep asking questions, sharing insights and learning from each other between workshops.

“Ultimately, the goal was to help them realize the value of bringing many different perspectives to the table and incorporating environmental justice into planning and decision making,” Cagle said.

“For instance, indigenous cultures tend to operate on a more eco-centric paradigm. They are much more place-based, more context-driven, with a strong spiritual element and sense of community. That contrasts with the more egocentric Anglo-American paradigm that emphasizes individuality, monetization and profits when thinking about natural resources,” she said. “When you bring these two perspectives together, conversations that normally don’t happen do happen, and you can tackle issues you couldn’t otherwise address.”

Discussions also focused on helping participants understand that environmental justice encompasses many considerations, including the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, the ability to participate in environmental decision making that affects you, and freedom from environmental degradation.

Paul James of Lighthouse Strategy Consulting facilitated the workshops and helped moderate with Cagle. Primary funding came from The Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation and the Nicholas School, with additional support from the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, Keep Durham Beautiful, TreesDurham and the Triangle Land Conservancy.

DEEP’s website spotlights a selection of diversity, equity and inclusion resources, including articles, research findings, videos, podcasts and organizational directories, for those who couldn’t attend this year’s workshops.

Holding future workshops to build on this year’s series is a possibility if there is demand for it, Cagle said. “DEEP’s mission is to inform, train and support environmental professionals and educators in our community and help promote environmental justice for all,” she said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”